"Pedigree Dogs Exposed"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Passionate Eye documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed”

You wrote to complain about the CBC broadcast (and re-broadcast) of a BBC documentary titled “Pedigree Dogs Exposed.” The film appeared on the documentary stream “The Passionate Eye.” The documentary appeared in late 2008 on the CBC after a longer version appeared earlier on the BBC.

The film became the subject of lengthy and complex complaints to the British body called Ofcom which handles complaints about British broadcast media. Perhaps unwisely in retrospect, I decided to wait for the British authority's report before conducting my own review. This is a two-person office while the British commission has a complex of committees and staffers. However, they took almost a year to review the matter.

Much of what they did does not apply to the Canadian broadcast since the CBC version was edited by Passionate Eye staff and eliminated some of the elements that Ofcom found problematic.

Your complaint centered on two aspects:

One, that interviews with the secretary of the genetics sub-committee of the Irish Red and White Setter Club of Great Britain and a number of exhibitors of the breed were not aired.

Two, you said that “Breeders and owners in the U.K. participated in this film under false pretenses” and that “all comments that were favourable to breeders and breed clubs were left on the editing room floor.”

Overall you felt that the program was “edited to only include information that was slanted to one point of view.”

Maza Molar, a Communications Officer with CBC's Audience Relations service, replied saying that “Pedigree Dogs Exposed was carefully researched over two years and its makers felt that the scale of the health concerns in pedigree dogs justified the documentary's emphasis on the industry's problems. The documentary produced for the BBC does not represent every breeder in the United Kingdom; it is reflective of one point of view and its aim was to provoke debate, which it is hoped will lead to improvement in the health and welfare of pedigree dogs.”

She went on to point out that the program, although not about Canadian practices, carried a response from the Canadian Kennel Club at the end of the broadcast.

You were dissatisfied with the response and asked for a review.


In your complaint you cited two sections from CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices; one on “Co-productions and Acquisitions” and one on “Editing Interviews.”

The relevant section of the former reads:

In the case of acquisitions, it may happen that the Corporation wishes to distribute a specific document because of its intrinsic value as news, even if it strays outside usual standards in doing so. In such cases the matter is to be referred to the department head for approval, and such productions must be accompanied by a background statement to properly inform audiences about the context of the document.

It is difficult to discern the relevance of the citation on Editing Interviews, since the material you cite did not appear in the documentary, nor was there a reference to Red and White Setters.

There are other sections of policy that should be considered as well. The documentary in question appears to fit the category of “Point-of-View Documentaries”. In Appendix A of CBC's Journalistic Standards of Practices we find, under Paragraph 2.2 this section:

Point of View Documentaries in the Sense of Personal Journalism. A documentary may take the form of a writer's journey through a story, an individual first‐person narrative. The phrase ‘point‐of‐view' is sometimes used to describe this form which leans on the documentarist's perspective to yield special insights. On occasion, the writer's revelation of his or her own initial biases and attitudes can actually lead to a particularly candid form of journalism. This is an accepted documentary practice.

It seems clear that as research progressed, the filmmaker's view of the subject evolved. The report from Ofcom noted this, but said that it could not find that there was unfairness to the British Kennel Club: “The Kennel Club was in a position to give informed consent for its participation in the programme and was given enough information during the lengthy production process to alert it to a change in the emphasis of the proposed programme. The Kennel Club was not deceived about the nature and purpose of the programme.”

In fact, Ofcom found similarly in several other claims of “unfairness.” It did find a problem with the editing of a certain section of a Kennel Club interview, but since that section was not broadcast by the CBC, I will not deal with it further. Similarly, there were other issues dealt with by Ofcom that were not present in the CBC version.

In viewing the CBC version of the film, it seems clear that at various junctures spokespeople for the Kennel Club and various breed organizations were given an opportunity to respond to claims and to state their position on various subjects raised. This would not seem to uphold the notion that the film was “edited to only include information that was slanted to one point of view.”

There are two instances of a scientific nature where the British agency found fault with the documentary. They concerned material that was contained in the CBC version. Both relate to the health conditions of the Rhodesian Ridgeback. The program says that the “ridge” of the Ridgeback is “a mild form of spina bifida that can cause serious health problems…” Ofcom found that the description is inaccurate.

Also, the program cited a condition called “Dermoid Sinus” and alleged that breeders were not doing all they could to deal with the condition. The Ofcom review found that the program makers did not “refer or appear to take into account caveats given by the scientist who conducted the research or the degree to which there was knowledge of this research amongst Ridgeback breeders.” It found that this was unfair.

Overall, however, in the frame of your complaint, both my review of the material and Ofcom's report do not support the notion of overall unfairness or editing to exclude countervailing opinions.

Interestingly, I received another complaint concerning this program, but that complaint criticized the decision to run the documentary on the grounds that viewers might conclude that the information applies to pedigree dogs in Canada: “Canadian breeders are further advanced when it comes to testing for genetic health disorders. I have years of experience dealing with UK breeders, and they typically don't test, nor are they, in many cases, even aware that their dogs' health issues are inherited.”

Conclusion

The documentary in the Passionate Eye stream, with the exceptions noted, was generally consistent with CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices for “point-of-view” documentaries, as appropriate time was given for countervailing views. The presence or absence of specific interviews is an editorial judgment of the producer. Since there was no mention of setters in the program I cannot find that it was unfair to not carry an interview with a setter breeder.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman